In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How do you perceive God? How do you understand the identity of the God who lays claim to your life? What is the personality of the God to whom you pray, if you pray? What kind of a God is he or she? And how do you understand God’s nature, God’s identity? Let me start by stating the obvious, the God we seek to understand is in truth, a mystery beyond all human understanding. Transcendent and holy other. What we can in fact know about God is like the sea captain. It’s like what the sea captain can know about the immense iceberg. Only a small part of God has been revealed. The rest is hidden from us. But of what we can see, of what we can know about God, who is God for you? There’s a great little book called Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God that does a wonderful job illustrating two very different understandings of God’s identity. The first image is described by Gerard Hughes in a section entitled “Good Old Uncle George.”
Hughes writes, “When I was a kid, God was like a family relative much admired by mom and dad who described him as very loving, a great friend of the family. Very powerful and interested in all of us. Eventually we were taken to visit Good Old Uncle George. He lived in a formidable mansion full of pews. He was bearded, gruff and scary. At the end of the visit, Uncle George addressed us, “Now, listen, dear,” he began, looking very severe, “I want to see you here once a week. And if you fail to come, let me show you what may happen to you.” He then leads us down to the basement. It’s dark. Becomes hotter and hotter as we descend. We see an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance who hurl into the blaze those who failed to visit Uncle George or to act in the way that he approved. “And if you don’t visit me, dear, this is most certainly where you will go,” says Uncle George. He then takes us upstairs again to see mom and dad. And as we go home, mom leans over and says, “And now don’t you just love Uncle George with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength?” And we say, yes, I do. Because to say anything else might mean we had to join the line at the furnace.”
In a satirical way, this author points out what is, or what at least was, for many in the Western world, the dominant image of God. God was an all-powerful figure who demanded certain behaviors from us. If we failed to live up to those behaviors, if we failed to believe as we should, then God would condemn us to a place of eternal darkness and pain. This God was two faced. As he promised to love us, at the same time as he threatened us with damnation. He was the God who watched our every move and kept records in his book. Records that he would then haul out and hold against us at the time of our death. With this God, there is salvation, but it seems to come with strings attached. With this God, salvation is not the gift, but the payoff for believing the way we have been told. We are loved but we live under the threat of damnation.
The second image of God comes from a story about a woman named Hilda, also taken from the book, Good Goats. The author writes, “One day, Hilda came to me crying because her son tried to end his life for the fourth time. She told me that he was involved in prostitution and drug dealing and even murder. She ended her list of her son’s big sins with, “what bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he dies without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?” The author went on to say, “Since at the time, my image of God was like Good Old Uncle George, I thought, “God will probably send your son to hell.” But I didn’t want to tell Hilda that. I was glad my years of theological training had taught me what to do when I don’t know how to answer a difficult question. That’s to ask the other person, “what do you think?” “Well,” Hilda responded, “I think when you die, you, you appear before the judgment seat of God. And if you’ve lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. And if you lived a bad life, God will send you to hell. Since my son lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.”
I was again glad for my theological training, which taught me a second strategy. When you don’t know how to solve a theological problem, let God solve it. So, I said to Hilda, “Close your eyes. Imagine that you were sitting next to the judgment seat of God. Imagine also that your son died with all these serious sins and without repenting. He has just arrived at the judgment seat of God.” The author added that after a few minutes of sitting quietly with her eyes closed, Hilda described the scene that she saw. Then I asked her, “Hilda, how does your son feel?” Hilda answered, “My son feels lonely and empty.” I asked Hilda what she would like to do. She said, “I want to throw my arms around my son.” She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son. Finally, when she stopped crying, I asked her to look into God’s eyes and watch what God wanted to do. God stepped down from his throne and, just as Hilda did, embraced Hilda’s son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son and God, cried together and held one another.”
That is the image of God I want to hold onto. That is the image of God I want to worship. The God who comes down from God’s throne to embrace us. To show us love and mercy. My friends, this is the God that Jesus reveals to us in our parable for today, the parable of the prodigal son, perhaps the most well-known parable in the entire New Testament. I believe it gives us the clearest picture of what God is like. Far from being good old Uncle George, the God Jesus reveals to us in the parable of the prodigal son is a God defined by extravagant love. A love that exceeds all expectations. We may sin. We may fall away like the prodigal son. But rather than be condemned, judged, and shunned as we may deserve, no matter how far we have strayed, God waits for us with open arms and a feast of welcome. As Thomas Long puts it so beautifully, “By all rights, this parable ought to end with the younger son sweating in the furrows, eating in the slave quarters and spending his days serving his older brother. So, if we prodigals see the father running in our direction with open arms, we should know in our souls that this is an event so unexpected, so undeserved, so out of joint with all that life should bring us, that we fall down in awe before this joyful mystery.”
What is your image of God? Because how we imagine God influences how we respond to God. And how we respond to God, either limits or enhances how we respond to each other in this life. Now let me be clear. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is a God who has expectations of us. It is not a matter of anything goes, this is not about cheap grace. God demands that we be just, that we be honest, that we be loving, that we be forgiving, that we be merciful. God demands that we seek and serve others rather than just ourselves. But God’s love is not contingent on those behaviors. The truth is we can turn from God, but God never turns from us. Because overarching all of God’s expectations of us, is the gift of love. A love so strong that our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to suffer and die for us in order to bring us to God.
When you close your eyes and say your prayers, do you see a God who seeks to judge you or a God who seeks to love you? Is God the gruff Uncle George or the father who runs to embrace his wayward son? Does this God love you unconditionally, or only if you live up to certain standards? As you move into the final two weeks of Lent, open your heart to the God who loves you far more than God stands in judgment over you. Open your heart to the God who wishes to give you much more than God demands from you. Say farewell to Good Old Uncle George and give praise and honor and glory to our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.